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Scottish Affairs Committee - The Future of HM Coastguard in Scotland - Minutes of EvidenceHC 583
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Scottish Affairs Committee
Her Majesty’s Coastguard in Scotland
Tuesday 4 September 2012
Stuart Atkinson, Dave Macbeth and Clive Welch
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 121
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Taken before the Scottish Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 4 September 2012
Mr Ian Davidson (Chair)
Mr Alan Reid
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Stuart Atkinson, Public and Commercial Services Union Official, Maritime and Coastguard Section, Dave Macbeth, Assistant Secretary, Maritime and Coastguard Agency section of the Public and Commercial Services Union, and Clive Welch, retired coastguard and past President of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency section of the Public and Commercial Services Union, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Gentlemen, could I welcome you to this meeting of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee and ask you, first of all, to introduce yourselves-to tell us who you are and what your remit and responsibilities are? We can then start on the questions.
Stuart Atkinson: I am Stuart Atkinson. I am a PCS officer with the MCA section. I am also a watch manager at Clyde coastguard.
Dave Macbeth: I am Dave Macbeth. I am with the PCS, MCA section, and also watch officer at Stornoway coastguard.
Clive Welch: I am Clive Welch. I am a retired coastguard. I was the PCS president until retirement of the coastguard section.
Chair: Thanks. Iain?
Q2 Iain McKenzie: Thank you, gentlemen, for coming along today. Can each of you explain briefly the effect that the proposed reforms to the coastguard will have on Scotland?
Stuart Atkinson: In Scotland, the proposals by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are that the stations at Clyde, which is Greenock, and at Forth, which is out at Fife Ness, will close. The first closure takes place on 28 September, which is Fife Ness. The coastguard station at Clyde is due for closure by 31 December of this year. That will leave us with three coastguard stations-one in Aberdeen, one in the Shetland Islands and one on the Isle of Lewis at Stornoway-and also a coastguard station in Northern Ireland, which will be looking after the west coast of Scotland.
Q3 Iain McKenzie: What do you think the effect of that will be on the coastline of Scotland?
Stuart Atkinson: One of the major effects that it will have is on local knowledge and accommodation; there is also the liaison with the other emergency services. That is all going to break down. With these stations closing earlier than the other stations around the United Kingdom, it means that the MCA does not at present have the coastal safety officers in place who were supposed to take on that liaison work. It also means, for example, that if a ferry gets into trouble in the Firth of Clyde there is a requirement on a ferry company to send an officer to the co-ordination centre, but that is going to be very difficult if it is in Bangor or Stornoway.
Q4 Iain McKenzie: May I ask the same question of Dave?
Dave Macbeth: I represent members up in Stornoway. The effect that it will have on members in Stornoway will be that we will have no support from the MOC, which is supposed to be in operation before Clyde closes. If Clyde closes before the MOC is in operation, then Stornoway’s area will double but with the same amount of personnel that we have at the moment. Between the three stations at Belfast, Stornoway and Clyde, you have 14 personnel normally on watch at one time. If they go, we will be lucky if we have eight on watch-and that is before the MOC is in operation.
Q5 Chair: Is that not enough?
Dave Macbeth: No. I wouldn’t say that it is enough, no.
Q6 Chair: Simply telling us that figure does not automatically convince us that it is not sufficient. It would be helpful if you explained why that was a difficulty.
Dave Macbeth: At the moment, we have 14 watch keepers covering quite a big area. We are going to have eight watch keepers covering the same area. You will have fewer people covering an area twice as big as before.
Q7 Chair: They could very well be underemployed now and therefore quite easily cover the work that the 14 are doing. You must appreciate that we are coming at this from the outside and that you need to justify why you are saying this.
Dave Macbeth: They will be covering an area that they are unfamiliar with. They will have had no real chance to get to know the area, although every effort has been made to do so. We are working in an unfamiliar area with unfamiliar people.
Q8 Mr Reid: Dave, you said that Stornoway’s area will double.
Dave Macbeth: It is going further south. At the moment, we go from Cape Wrath down to Ardnamurchan, and the proposed boundary is to the south of Mull.
Stuart Atkinson: It is South Knapdale, which is halfway between Oban and Tarbert.
Dave Macbeth: We already have the Western Isles and the mainland of Scotland, from Cape Wrath down to Ardnamurchan point. We go out into the Atlantic as well. We are now being asked to go even further south, into unfamiliar territory.
Q9 Chair: Why can’t you cope with that additional area?
Dave Macbeth: Because of unfamiliarity.
Q10 Chair: I understand the point about unfamiliarity, but presumably that is something that will come with time.
Dave Macbeth: It will come eventually.
Q11 Chair: Explain to me why you would be overstretched-if that is the point that you are making.
Dave Macbeth: We will be overstretched because we are unfamiliar with the area and will have to learn as we go along. We should not have to do that. We should know that area.
Q12 Iain McKenzie: With the handover taking place at this moment in time, will the local knowledge and expertise from those bases that are targeted for closure exist beyond the end of the year?
Dave Macbeth: We have a north-west quadrant meeting, where people from Stornoway, Clyde and Belfast meet on a regular basis.
Q13 Iain McKenzie: How regular is that? Is it once a month or once a week?
Dave Macbeth: I think it is once a month.
Stuart Atkinson: May I answer that question? Basically, the Government have said that there used to be pairing between Clyde and Belfast on a regular basis. Since the equipment was put in, which I believe was in about 2005, there have been five occasions when we have actually paired.
The point is that eight staff are not enough. I shall give an example. This weekend we were quite quiet-we are a responsive service-and then suddenly we had four incidents all within five minutes. One of them was fairly major in nature, involving a person’s life. Also Belfast had two incidents ongoing at that time. That would have meant six incidents for four staff. That is a complete overload. We were overloaded because we were below our risk-assessed levels. What Dave was trying to say is that at Clyde our risk-assessed level during the summer months is six coastguard officers; in Stornoway it is four, and in Belfast it is four.
After the MCA gave its expression of interest, it asked staff at both Forth and Clyde where they would like to go. No one has said that they will go up to Stornoway, so the local knowledge held with officers in Clyde is not going to be transferred to Stornoway because no one is going there. Only three people are going to Belfast out of the staff at Clyde, and one of them is not quite sure whether he is going or not, so it could be only two. They still have to provide a 24-hour service, so there is not going to be the local knowledge held in the Belfast area as well.
When it comes to an emergency on the west coast, because of the topography and because of the difficulties that we can have-the MCA has gone on quite a lot about local knowledge, but local knowledge is different for every district. Local knowledge for a coastal safety officer is about the local area. Local knowledge to an operations room is about the local area but it is also about knowing which hospital to send an individual to. There is no point in leaving somebody who has had a heart attack going to a small cottage hospital in the Isle of Mull, when the best facilities are down in Glasgow.
Local knowledge is knowing who to contact when you can’t get hold of a coastal safety officer-that is happening more and more because they are volunteers-which ships to contact, knowing which ferry is operating on that route, building up that liaison with the master and the operators, and people who are on charter trips with divers. That is local knowledge that has been built up over many years. To try to replicate that with IT systems is impossible, but that is what is happening during the transitional period. There will not be support from the MOC because it is not operational yet, and it will not be operational until 2014. There will be no support for staff in Stornoway or Belfast once Clyde goes, and the vast majority of staff are not prepared to move to facilitate the closure of Clyde. They just want to take early retirement or early redundancy, whichever is their option.
Q14 Lindsay Roy: On the east coast, with the closure of Fife Ness, can you give us some detailed examples of where local knowledge has been vital to life saving in the last year or so from your experience?
Stuart Atkinson: Yes. One example I can give is the mountain biker who was completely lost in very poor weather on a loch side, who made a 999 call. The information came up on ISEC. ISEC gives us a position, a grid reference, but I knew that that was wrong. There was something not coming right about that, and when we started investigating and asking questions we found that what he was describing was completely not what the information was that was being displayed in front of us. We established his location, and it was a quite a simple rescue in the end, but it took time. It is the questioning and the drawing out from the person in trouble where he is. It is exactly the same; it does not matter which coastguard station. It is about knowing your area. That biker could only make a 999 call. He couldn’t use VHF because of the area. He was describing something, but what we were being told by our IT systems was completely wrong.
That will happen in Scotland more than anywhere else in the UK because of the topography. A mobile phone mast will pick up a signal. In another example, on Loch Lomond a small ferry capsized. The call was picked up by a mobile phone mast over on the east coast. That is many miles away. It was only because of the knowledge of the coastguard officers on watch that we said, "No, this is not quite right." In that case, it was speed-they were in the water 20 minutes; they were picked up by helicopter; their eyes were rolling; and they were severely hypothermic. We actually effected that rescue within 20 minutes, but it was picking up the phone and knowing where to go. It was a local hotelier who looked out of the window and said, "Oh my God, it’s our ferry that’s in trouble." Three people were rescued, and their lives were saved because of local knowledge.
Q15 Lindsay Roy: The closures we are told are being prompted in part by financial savings. Is this likely to have an impact on life saving?
Stuart Atkinson: Yes. I believe that the closure of Clyde and Forth are down to accommodation costs, not operational need, especially during the transitional period. The transitional period is fraught with danger. They do not have the staff prepared to move. They have officers at Bangor and Belfast and at Aberdeen and Shetland having to take over areas without the support. The Minister did say to local MPs that they would be adequately resourced. In our opinion, Shetland, Aberdeen, Bangor and Stornoway are not being adequately resourced; they are having to do the same job in a much bigger area, so more incidents will come their way.
Incidents do not line themselves up. We do not start at 8.00 and finish at 20.00 on a day shift, and have on incident per hour. What tends to happen is that you can go for a few hours with a lot of routine work and then suddenly you get five or six incidents, especially on a hot summer day, on the beaches, over on the east or west coast when you suddenly get an offshore wind. That is when the tourists start to get into trouble, and you get five or six incidents all running at once, or you might get a squall go through an area and you get many yachts calling for assistance. It will then calm down again and then build up, so you cannot predict the work load on a coastguard station. You have to have enough officers to be able to deal with the routine work and incidents, and also to be able to deal with the one major incident that comes occasionally.
The first hour of any incident is what they call "the golden hour" and, if the right decisions are not made then, people may lose their lives or the rescue may not go too well. That is when we end up being criticised for failing. That is really all that I can say about it.
Q16 Lindsay Roy: In your view, is the Minister being highly selective in saying that there has been overwhelming support to retain Stornoway and Lerwick? Are you aware of opposition to retaining Clyde and Forth, or has it been the same overwhelming support in these areas?
Stuart Atkinson: There has been overwhelming support. I have not met one politician who said that they were for this closure, and I have not met one councillor who has; for example, on the west coast the 11 councils have pledged to try to retain the coastguard station. It is the same on the east coast. There has been opposition against it. Only last Friday, there was a massive demonstration outside the coastguard station in Greenock, showing support for retaining that station. There were 76 boats outside, and possibly up to 1,000 people, lying in the Firth of Clyde and showing support, wanting the Government to change their mind and retain the coastguard station. It is exactly the same on the east coast.
Q17 Lindsay Roy: Have any risk assessments been done?
Stuart Atkinson: Not as far as I am aware. I keep asking at the north-west quadrant what is their plan B and where are the risk assessments, and all they say is that they did a generic risk assessment for the original consultation process. No individual risk assessment has been done for the closure of the Clyde of Forth.
Q18 Lindsay Roy: Would you not consider that to be an abdication of responsibility?
Stuart Atkinson: Of course I do, because what happens if it does not work? What are they going to do? We have constantly said that you are not going to get the staff moving. The union has said that. We knew that because of the wage levels that the MCA is paying. In some cases it is just above the minimum wage. People are not going to move and disrupt their families until they sort out the wage problem within the Coastguard Agency. It is always going to be a problem. I would think that the first thing you would want to do before you close any coastguard station is to do that risk assessment, and also to look at the social and economic impact that it will have on the area. That does not seem to have been done.
Q19 Mr Reid: What are the Government’s proposals if something was to happen at Stornoway that was to put the station out of action? What is the contingency plan B for the area that it covers?
Dave Macbeth: At the moment there is none.
Q20 Mr Reid: None?
Dave Macbeth: Once Clyde goes, there is none. Belfast would have dialled into us. They could take over the station and aerials and so on, but that would leave, perhaps, four people to do that massive area that is currently done by 14. We do not have support from the MOC.
Q21 Mr Reid: You said that they could link into your aerial. What if there was a fire or some natural disaster that meant that your whole building, including the aerial, was out of action?
Dave Macbeth: Belfast would have one hell of an area to look after.
Q22 Mr Reid: What area would it have to cover?
Dave Macbeth: It would have to cover from Ardnamurchan in the north down to the Solway Firth.
Stuart Atkinson: Cape Wrath.
Dave Macbeth: I am sorry, from Cape Wrath down to the Solway Firth.
Q23 Mr Reid: Effectively, the whole west coast of Scotland.
Dave Macbeth: Yes, the whole of the west coast of Scotland apart from the north-west coast.
Stuart Atkinson: And out to sea.
Dave Macbeth: Out to sea, and the Western Isles and all the small islands in between.
Q24 Mr Reid: How many people would they have on duty?
Dave Macbeth: They would have four in Belfast.
Q25 Mr Reid: In a worst-case scenario in your experience, how many incidents would be under way at the one time?
Dave Macbeth: It depends. You could have four incidents going on at Clyde, maybe two or three at Stornoway and another two or three at Belfast.
Q26 Mr Reid: So Belfast with what, its four staff, would have to cover-
Dave Macbeth: It may be eight, nine or 10 incidents at one time.
Q27 Chair: May I clarify this? At the moment, if somewhere goes down, then presumably there is going to be disruption and difficulties anyway, so in a sense under the new provision it would not be any different, would it?
Dave Macbeth: At the moment you have three stations. You have Stornoway, Clyde and Belfast.
Q28 Chair: Yes, but somebody without local knowledge would then have to step in and deal with an area in the absence of a particular station. That would happen now. The only difference is that in future, if this goes ahead, the areas that would have to be covered would be bigger.
Dave Macbeth: That would be only for a short time. You would be able to transfer your staff, because if your staff are not injured maybe they could come down to Clyde or to Belfast.
Q29 Chair: So that provision would still happen under the new arrangements.
Dave Macbeth: It will be from Southampton. It will be from Fareham.
Q30 Chair: Right. So it would have to be from Southampton in those circumstances.
Dave MacBeth: But that will not come into force until 2014.
Chair: I am sorry. Let’s be clear about this.
Q31 Mr Reid: My understanding is that at the moment you have two stations that are paired. Am I right?
Dave Macbeth: Clyde and Belfast are paired. Stornoway can now dial into Belfast.
Q32 Mr Reid: What happens at the moment if Stornoway goes down?
Dave Macbeth: If Stornoway goes down, then Belfast would have to take over.
Q33 Mr Reid: At present.
Dave Macbeth: At present Clyde would have to take over our area.
Q34 Mr Reid: And under the new set-up it would mean that procedures would be in place but it would be a much larger area to cover.
Dave Macbeth: It would be a much larger area, yes.
Q35 Mr Reid: But that is until the MOC at Southampton is ready.
Dave Macbeth: Yes.
Q36 Mr Reid: And that will be ready in 2014.
Dave Macbeth: Yes, it is 2014.
Q37 Mr Reid: Are your concerns only between now and the MOC being ready, or would you still have concerns even if the MOC was in place?
Dave Macbeth: We would still have concerns because the idea of the MOC has not been reliably tested. Nobody has given it a test to make sure that it will work. We do not know.
Q38 Chair: Can I clarify this point? How many times in the last five years have you had one of the stations going down completely?
Stuart Atkinson: Never. We have had partial breakdowns. Stornoway has lost all its aerial sites and Clyde has provided a service, but there is a contingency plan. Our volunteers are sent up to aerial sites and they dial into the centre.
The one thing that has to be stressed is that, if a centre goes down now, the local knowledge is still there at the end of the telephone, very quickly. We have emergency plans. You would still be able to speak to a coastguard officer in Stornoway if you were unsure. If you received a 999 call from, say, Ullapool and you were not quite sure, you would be able to pick on that local knowledge straight away, whereas, under the new system, if Stornoway goes down, the Maritime Operation Centre at Fareham would take over or would be running that area, and they would have to get hold of the on-call person, which they would expect to be coastal safety officers, to provide assistance.
On the west coast of Scotland that is very difficult. It might work down on the English south coast, where there are a number of people and they could get to a major incident quickly, but can you imagine an incident happening in the Firth of Clyde when the on-duty person is actually based in Kirkcudbright? It will take him four hours to get up there, to take co-ordination for the coastal part.
The prime example was the recent tragedy in Loch Gaerloch, for which my colleague here was the SMC. It took them quite a long time to get all the volunteers out for the search. It is not always that easy to get the sector managers because they are not on call. They are not providing that, but the PCS is not against a national network. We see that as a way forward, but we believe that the MOC is untested and untried. A lot of technology has to be tested before it can be used.
We are unsure where they are going to get these 96 officers from. For example, at present we have 76 vacancies out of a staff of approximately 486. We have 101 members of staff who are on fixed-term appointments, and a lot of them are under training. They may well move, but they are being brought in as a stop gap while the change goes ahead. That is a loss of experience. You are losing experienced coastguard officers all the time to other jobs or to retirement. They are going. They are leaving the service and their knowledge is going. We do not know how they are going to replicate the local knowledge at the MOC.
Q39 Iain McKenzie: I would like you to clarify for the panel your view on the overall issue of reform. From what you are saying, you are not against or opposed to reforms. The Minister did say that change was necessary for the Coastguard. Is it your position that reforms have to be made but that these are the wrong reforms?
Clive Welch: May I come in here? In the original negotiations, we were after fairer pay and better pay for all the coastguards. Part of the agreement on that at the end was that we would welcome reform if it led to a better standard of pay and living standards for coastguard officers. The project that was put forward in the end was the two MOCs-one in Aberdeen and one in Southampton, which was going to be at Daedalus.
The arrangement then was that they would look at the staffing totally, right the way through the Coastguard Service and look at the pay structure as well. When I left, we had had no meetings on the pay structure at all, and our members were getting quite annoyed with that. It has got to the stage now that the people who are left are fixed-term appointments and retirees, and I cannot see that the MOC, which is going to be 96 or 98 people, will have sufficient knowledge to staff it to the standard that they originally thought they would.
The original concept was that it was something like NATS, when NATS moved from West Drayton down to the south coast, and the people that moved were on a wage structure so that they could afford to move. A lot of the Coastguard Service wages are second wages in the households, and you are not going to get people to move down to Fareham from Stornoway, Clyde or wherever. It is just not going to work like that. I feel that it has to be really looked at. On the local knowledge side of things, I cannot see it being effective to work the thing from Fareham at the moment, but that is just how I see it at the moment.
Q40 Chair: It would be helpful if you were to let us have a table of wage rates. You are talking about low wages, but I do not know what levels you are talking about. If you were to let us have that it would be helpful, and we can raise the matter with the Minister in due course. I presume that you cannot recite them off the top of your heads, so send them in writing.
Stuart Atkinson: Right at the bottom end, it is a few pence above the minimum wage. There is a Coastguard allowance for working shift patterns-nights-which is 25%. At the top end, a watch manager who is in charge of a watch, with his Coastguard allowance, is on just under £33,000 a year. That is somebody who has ultimate responsibility for search and rescue throughout an area.
Compare that to the fire service, when we first started the campaign. At that time our staff were starting at about £12,000 a year, and the fire service were doing a similar job, answering telephone calls but without the responsibility and without the year’s training. The training was three months in the fire service, but for a Coastguard watch assistant it was 12 months at that time, although it has shrunk. The difference was £12,000 to £18,000, and both had an allowance on top for working unsociable hours. There was a massive difference. The police are exactly the same. Beamans did a report back in 1996, which indicated that Coastguard levels of pay were well below those of the other emergency services.
Chair: Thank you; that will be helpful.
Q41 Pamela Nash: Following on from what you were saying, Clive, do you think that there is a chance that the Government’s proposed reforms can deliver the higher pay that is deserved by coastguards?
Clive Welch: When I left, the original idea that was being mooted was that, within the civil service structure, there would be a movement of perhaps two grades. I think that people would have been content with that. I have always said that, to my mind, a watch officer should be equated with a second mate at sea. That was one of the structures that they were looking towards. Also, at Trinity House, which looks after all the lighthouses, its officers do a similar job, only looking after lightships and lighthouses, and they are on that sort of pay structure. Their basic wage is about £33,000, and then they have bits on top for the shift pattern.
Q42 Pamela Nash: Just to be clear, the Government have said that they can deliver higher pay without increasing the funding that is planned.
Clive Welch: It was intimated at some of the meetings that, if we complied with their ideas, then we would get a better pay structure. It was put that way, although there was nothing official on that.
Q43 Chair: But that has not been delivered.
Clive Welch: No. That has not been delivered to this day, as far as I know.
Q44 Chair: As far as you know. I want to be clear of the position.
Stuart Atkinson: Dave and I are on the negotiating team. At the present time there has been a proposal put to the Department for Transport, but we have not seen any sign of anything. We are not saying that PCS will accept that because we have a lot of questions. We are only at the start of that process, but it means that the Coastguard Service will be much smaller than we feel is required.
They seem to have gone for a one size fits all, the MOC with 96 staff and every other coastguard station around the UK, which is remaining open, having 23 staff. That does not make sense because some are busier than others. It will mean that on occasions-on a night shift for example-it could be down to two people. That will open up a lot of questions. It means that while meal breaks take place they will be down to one person.
For example, Stornoway, with one person, will not be an operational coastguard. You cannot monitor 20 VHF channels, answer 999 calls, answer routine calls for weather and meteorological information and carry out routine reports with only one or two people on duty. It will make them non-operational. That work could well be taken over by the MOC, but as Clive said, in relation to those 96 staff and the fact that we have so many vacancies around the coast at the moment, where are these experienced staff going to come from? They will come either from stations that are remaining open, and therefore they will be depleted, or they just will not materialise.
Q45 Jim McGovern: On the subject of consultation, Stuart, you mentioned earlier that you have never met or spoken to a politician who supports these proposals. Who consults the union? The two names in the briefing that we have received are Philip Hammond and Mike Penning. Have they ever spoken to you?
Stuart Atkinson: No. My understanding, although Clive might correct me, is that when they did that trial, which was a paper exercise, it was clearly evident to us that there were major flaws and that the MOC could not take over this work from a normal coastguard station. If it became overloaded they would take over part of the work, but that did not work because they still had to use the same aerial sites, which caused confusion. The work then just stopped: there were no more talks at all. No one spoke to the union about their plans.
Suddenly we ended with the first consultation process, which, in my opinion, was completely flawed. In the second one, they did not ask the question that the public, the mariner and everybody concerned wanted answering, "Do you want to retain a coastguard station at Clyde?", or "Do you want to retain a coastguard station at Fife Ness?" That question was never asked. It was just assumed that it was because of accommodation problems. For instance, it was a Ministry of Defence building that the Navy said it would like to close down. It was said that we could just get rid of those two stations. It was not looked at as an operational requirement.
I was doing some research yesterday and it appears that the cost of the rent for the Greenock building is about £110,000 a year, yet it is costing £110,000 to move the equipment to Belfast. I presume that it is the same up to Stornoway. They are going to have to upgrade and exchange somewhere on the west coast. Figures have been bandied around-I do not know whether they are truthful-of about £140,000, but they are going to have to spend about £75,000 to move our marine surveyors away from Greenock. It seems that a huge amount of money is going to be spent to get a worse service than we have now, rather than looking at the fundamental question, "Do we need a coastguard station in the central belt of Scotland? Yes or no?" That question was never put to the public. They were never given that right. It was just assumed that Clyde and Forth would close.
Q46 Jim McGovern: So that I am clear on this, Stuart, the Government Ministers who were certainly responsible for making the statements outlining the proposals did not consult the PCS.
Stuart Atkinson: No, they did not consult with the PCS.
Q47 Chair: May I clarify one point about the costings and savings of all of this? I presume that the Government have produced a sheet indicating how much they anticipate saving as a result of all this. What is that figure?
Stuart Atkinson: In the consultation process there is a figure, but I do not know off the top of my head what it is.
Q48 Chair: We will get that checked. I wondered whether the figure that the Government were quoting was one that you accepted. You raise a number of points about the cost of moving equipment and so on. There are proposed savings from all that, notwithstanding the fact that they have said that some of the money would be redirected into increased salaries, if that does happen. Did you recognise the financial pattern that they were outlining?
Stuart Atkinson: They were looking for a 20% saving in the overall cost of the Coastguard Service. That was prior to them taking over a building that was built for the fire service down in Fareham, which never went ahead. The reorganisation of the fire service did go ahead. That building this year they have rent-free. This information comes from an FOI request. From next year they will be paying £360,000 a year for that building. I believe that that does not include maintenance costs. That equates over a 10-year period to quite a lot of money.
Their original plan was to build their own premises at the Daedalus site and use that. They own the land, anyway. There is already a hangar there for the search and rescue helicopter. They are now planning to build a new coastal safety hub or training centre for coastal officers. They will use it for maritime officers, which will be the people working in the operations room. That is going to be at the MOC.
Personally, over a number of years they are going to spend a fortune on a site-£360,000 a year-when it would have been realistic to build their own site, and they could have built a much smaller one. They did not need the size of building that they will inherit. I can understand why the Government wanted to use that because they were paying that kind of rent for a building that was left empty.
Q49 Lindsay Roy: Do you have detailed figures on the number of call-outs at Clyde and Forth over the last couple of years? You could send that to us, to give us an indication of the volume of calls and responses.
Stuart Atkinson: We can certainly do that. We have those figures. They were given by the staff at Greenock, and I am sure that the same happened at Stornoway. The information was readily available. What I will say is that it is not just a call because a coastguard officer, unlike a police controller, takes charge from the initial call right to the end. An incident can last 15 minutes or it can last days out in the Atlantic, and they have never taken that workload into account.
Lindsay Roy: Knowing the number of call-outs would be most helpful.
Q50 Chair: I take the point of Lindsay’s question. I understand your response saying that a call-out does not equal a call-out in a sense and that that has to be taken into account. Is there anything that you have to indicate that, under the current level of staffing provision, there are times when you have been at over-capacity-when you have more work than you could cope with-or that you have been pretty well bumping along at the top, but with the reduced capacity, under the proposed layout, you would then have been at over-capacity?
For us to be able to argue that the change should not be proceeded with, we have to be clear what the dangers are, but we are not entirely clear at the moment. I understand the words, but we do not quite have the pattern or the figures to back it up. Iain, do you want to come in on this?
Q51 Iain McKenzie: The Government have offered to all members the ability to transfer to the other coastguard stations. To your knowledge, how many of your members have taken up that option, and are they taking it up in significant numbers to be in a position to man those stations before the end of the year?
Dave Macbeth: No, not to our knowledge. Not many people are willing to move.
Q52 Iain McKenzie: How many vacancies would you say that that leaves in light of the others-the Belfasts, the Aberdeens, the Stornoways?
Dave Macbeth: With the new proposal of 23 people in each station, Stornoway is up to manning 23 people. We are fully manned. I cannot answer for Shetland or Aberdeen. I do not know what their figures are, but we are fully manned at the moment.
Q53 Iain McKenzie: You say that there is a safety concern, but we are about to make that switchover at a station that is not manned.
Dave Macbeth: We don’t have enough. Our station has applied for six extra staff to help over the transition period. To date, we have not been given those staff.
Q54 Iain McKenzie: There are all sorts of considerations for Stornoway. If for any reason the coastguard station at Stornoway should be out of action, in the future Belfast will take over.
Dave Macbeth: Belfast will, yes.
Q55 Iain McKenzie: If they had the manpower now.
Dave Macbeth: I don’t think that Belfast will be able to cope with incidents in Clyde and Stornoway if Stornoway went down.
Q56 Chair: You think that, but can you produce something that would show us? When the Minister comes in front of us, rather than simply saying, "We met a man who told us that he didn’t think that we would be able to cope with it", it would be much better to have something a bit firmer than that.
Dave Macbeth: I would not be able to comment on incidents in the Clyde or Belfast areas because at the moment I do not know them.
Q57 Chair: But between you, then.
Dave Macbeth: Between us, with the three stations, yes, we can cope. That is not a problem. We have enough staff. If we take one of those stations out of the equation, then I doubt whether we would be able to cope.
Q58 Chair: It would be helpful, before we see the Minister, if there was anything that you were able to give us that we could put to him to indicate that, with the existing work load, the proposed layout would not be able at some peak times to cope. That would be a strong case for us, but we do not have that at the moment. I do not know whether that has already been drawn up and submitted, but the Committee certainly has not seen it and nor have the local members. If you could let us have that fairly quickly, it would be immensely helpful. It would strengthen our case quite considerably.
Stuart Atkinson: We can provide the numbers. Obviously, the information is held by the MCA about certain numbers. The biggest problem that we have is that the MCA does not record when four incidents happen at Belfast or Stornoway. It will record an incident, but one incident is one incident.
We can only speak from our experience. For example, I had four staff on watch on Sunday, and we overloaded for a short period of time because we had so much information coming in and there were three incidents ongoing at the time. We were risk-assessed for six staff, so I was already down for that period.
The risk assessments that have been written have been looked at on what the projected routine work is, what the projected incident work is and also it has an element factoring in for that major incident that could happen. We are overborne in a certain way, just the same as the fire service, because we are reactive. We do not want to be flat out with work. We want to have some resilience to be able to deal with the ferry that gets into trouble. However, we can certainly provide you with numbers of incidents at all three stations and at Shetland and Aberdeen.
Chair: You understand the point that we are looking for. We want to be clear and have some evidence that supports your belief that the new proposed layout could not cope with peaks of demand. That would be helpful.
Q59 Mr Reid: I think I know the answer, but, for the record, do you agree that both Forth and Clyde stations should stay open?
Dave Macbeth: Yes.
Stuart Atkinson: Yes.
Q60 Mr Reid: If they stay open, what implication would that have for the other changes to the service that the Government are proposing? For example, in the consultation document, the Government proposed increasing the number of coastguards supporting the volunteers from 80 to 105, and there would also be better pay for those coastguards who stay after the changes. If you are not making any savings by closing stations, what do you see as the knock-on effect of the other changes to the service proposed by the Government that could be seen as beneficial?
Stuart Atkinson: The savings from stations are minuscule. The accommodation costs are minuscule. They will save in wages, because the Coastguard Service will be smaller. Yes, there might be more coastal safety officers, but there will be fewer people in our operations room. They are the people who take the 999 calls, and they are the people who actually make the decisions. There will be fewer decision makers, but there will be more people on the coast supporting our volunteers. That is correct, and we welcome that.
Q61 Mr Reid: Do you have any figures for what would be saved by closing Clyde and Forth?
Stuart Atkinson: The cost of running Clyde is just under £1 million a year, which is one of the biggest stations in the UK. That covers accommodation, maintenance and staff costs.
Q62 Mr Reid: If you strip out the staff costs and just look at the cost of accommodation and servicing the accommodation, do you have any figures for the saving that would be made?
Stuart Atkinson: The saving would be £110,000. However, they are going to have to lease a new building, which possibly might be near the airport.
Q63 Mr Reid: A new building where?
Stuart Atkinson: Near Glasgow airport.
Q64 Mr Reid: What is that new building for?
Stuart Atkinson: That is for the coastal safety manager, one of the new team leaders and the surveyors, who are already co-located in Greenock. They will have to find new accommodation.
We looked at rental costs. For example, the rental cost in Greenock is about £10 per square foot. Rental costs near the airport are about £14.95 per square foot, although we all know that subsidies can be had. We think that the cost is going to be about £75,000 to move the surveyors. There is the cost of Navy buildings to the Government.
It is not just the Coastguard Service. There is also salvage and mooring and the RNR that are going to have to move out. The cost must be horrendous. We have heard figures of £4 million for salvage and mooring, which is a specialist organisation, moving from Greenock across to Faslane. The RNR is having to move up to RNR Govan and is having to refurbish the accommodation up there. There is also a knock-on effect because other people will lose their jobs. For example, the cleaners who work in Navy buildings have been told that they will be made redundant in November. Those are costs that we cannot look at, so the effect of the savings is going to be about £32,000.
Q65 Mr Reid: That is savings on building costs. How many people are employed in ports in the Coastguard Service at the moment?
Stuart Atkinson: Coastguard officers or within the Maritime and Coastguard Agency?
Q66 Mr Reid: I am not quite sure. I mean people who are involved in manning these coastguard centres.
Stuart Atkinson: At Greenock, we are complemented for 31 officers.
Q67 Mr Reid: In total, throughout the country.
Stuart Atkinson: Will you bear with me? I have that figure in front of me somewhere. There are 485 coastguard officers in our operations rooms, and there are 75 coastguard officers and sector managers based around the country. That is approximately 550 in total.
Q68 Mr Reid: So these are people who are actually working.
Stuart Atkinson: Not all working, no. That is what we are complemented for. We have a number of vacancies. On 22 August, it was 76.4 operational coastguards. As I said before, there were 101 people on fixed-term appointments-that is those with less than two years’ service-because that is when the fixed-term appointments started for these people. The first of them is just getting renewed now and getting another fixed-term appointment. We also have 36 officers who are temporarily and geographically promoted, who are filling jobs above their grade.
Q69 Mr Reid: Do you believe that all these jobs are required, or could the service be provided with fewer jobs?
Stuart Atkinson: As an example, Aberdeen and Clyde coastguard had over 1,000 hours of overtime last month each, so 2,000 hours. The human resources are not there.
Q70 Mr Reid: If there are few savings to be made by closing coastguard stations and you are working overtime at the moment, do you have any alternative proposals to the Government for reorganising the service, or do you feel that there is no way of improving the way it is at the moment? Do you have alternative proposals?
Stuart Atkinson: We have an alternative proposal. We welcome the MOC-the national framework. That will give better resilience. The resilience is not that bad at present, but we welcome the extra 25 or 26 coastal safety officers. Some of them are managers and will not be on the coast. The vast majority of them will be managing the coastal safety officers in post. However, there are other things that the coastguard can do.
For example, civil aviation emergencies are now dealt with by the RAF, but we are part of the Department for Transport. That could quite easily be handed over. We have the same equipment and we do the same job as the RAF, which is basically at Kinross. Another area that could be looked at is inland search and rescue.
In Northern Ireland, for example, the coastguard station tasks and alerts the mountain rescue teams. That could easily happen in Scotland as well. The coastguards have taken over the English lakes and the Norfolk broads. We are maritime people and we understand it. Unfortunately, that has not happened in Scotland. The police have asked for us to take on Loch Lomond. They would like us to do it because it would release police officers to do their job rather than having to deal with incidents on Loch Lomond.
Q71 Mr Reid: That is devolved to the Scottish Government. Have you spoken to the Scottish Government at all about that proposal?
Stuart Atkinson: I do not know.
Q72 Mr Reid: You would think that the UK and Scottish Governments have talked to each other.
Stuart Atkinson: I know that the Scottish Government have made representations about the closures. They are against them.
Q73 Mr Reid: I mean about you taking over responsibility from the police for inland waterways.
Stuart Atkinson: I do not know how far it has got. I know that it was talked about at senior management levels.
Q74 Mr Reid: If all these mergers that you propose went ahead, have you done any analysis of what savings could be made?
Stuart Atkinson: We, personally, have not done any analysis because we do not have the data available to do that.
Q75 Mr Reid: In the Government’s proposals, as well as the bad things, there are also the carrots, in that they are offering better pay and extra staff to manage the volunteers. How do you find the funding for the carrots if no savings are made elsewhere?
Stuart Atkinson: My only answer is, yes, we need the carrot. The problem that the Government have at present with our wage structure is that we are not getting the right type of person into the Coastguard Service. They are looking for people with five or six years’ maritime experience, who are probably earning £40,000 or £45,000 a year, and offering them as a direct entry watch officer-
Q76 Mr Reid: There is widespread agreement that the pay is not good enough and should be increased. The Government accept that, but where would you find the money for increased pay unless you make savings somewhere else?
Stuart Atkinson: I have been a coastguard officer for 24 years, and every coastguard station that I have worked at has always had to rely on overtime. If we were correctly resourced, we would not have the overtime costs, which are substantial.
Q77 Mr Reid: So you think that a saving could be made there.
Stuart Atkinson: There are ways that we could save money. We possibly do not need as many staff as we have now. We could look at ways of supporting coastguard stations. We could look at the number of people that we have on in certain areas. There could be savings in that area. The main cost to any organisation is wage costs, not accommodation. That could be looked at, but we have to have adequate staff on to answer the major emergencies. Often, we find that we do not have adequate staff on because of the way our system is worked. It is not responsive but a little reactive. The unions are more than happy to talk to management about alternative working patterns, which could produce savings.
Q78 Mr Reid: In your response to the Government’s consultation, did you put in an alternative reorganisation, or do you think that the present set-up is the best one that you could have?
Stuart Atkinson: We did put in an alternative, which was to retain the coastguard stations into a national framework. We do not believe that staffing levels at MOC could be much smaller, which would have saved money. I mentioned that before.
Q79 Mr Reid: Do you have a number?
Stuart Atkinson: We need a national framework. We agree with that. We do not believe that we need a Maritime Operations Centre.
Q80 Mr Reid: So you could have a national framework without the MOC.
Stuart Atkinson: Yes. We could have the two data centres that are talked about, but all coastguard stations could be connected together within the present structure. That would provide the resilience. For example, if Stornoway went down for whatever reason, Clyde would easily be able to take over their area. As long as we have the correct manning levels, that can be done.
Q81 Mr Reid: What was the Government’s response to your proposal?
Stuart Atkinson: They did not accept our proposals.
Q82 Mr Reid: Did they give any reasons?
Stuart Atkinson: No, not as far I am aware.
Q83 Chair: I wish to pursue one point with you, and that is the question of the transfer of responsibilities from the Scottish Government to you. You mentioned specifically Loch Lomond. This would be what-potentially the transfer of responsibilities away from the police to the Coastguard Service for all inland waterways? I wish to clarify the point.
Stuart Atkinson: What happens on Loch Lomond at present, if you look at Loch Lomond’s national park website, is that it says to call 999 and ask for the police or the coastguard. If we receive a call, the co-ordinating authority for the resources, which are the volunteers on Loch Lomond, is a police responsibility. All that we would do is to take that responsibility.
A prime example was a search for two missing people on Loch Lomond. The police helicopter was involved, and the pilot spoke to us and asked for a search plan to search for them-the point is that the police are not maritime people-and we provided that. We will work with them because saving life is what we are here for. It would not be just Loch Lomond. I would suggest looking at where commercial vessels are operating-that is small tourist vessels-such as Loch Lomond, Loch Awe and Loch Tay in Scotland. We already have a co-ordination authority in Loch Ness and Loch Oich, the lochs through the Caledonian canal-the natural parts. We and the police co-ordinate the man-made parts of any rescue. For the vast majority, the bigger areas of water, it is ourselves. We do that work already. Why not expand that work? The savings would come by releasing police officers to do other work.
Q84 Chair: I understand that. Has a written proposal been drawn up for this at all?
Stuart Atkinson: Not as far as I know. I know that four or five years ago Strathclyde police, as they were and still are, made a proposal to senior management of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which they turned down on cost issues and on infrastructure issues on Loch Lomond. At that time we took over the river Clyde up as far as the centre of Glasgow, for co-ordination, but they also wanted us to take Loch Lomond. The cost of putting in VHF coverage and the landlines back to Greenock was felt by our senior management in Aberdeen to be inappropriate at the time.
Q85 Chair: Was that inappropriate because the cost was all going to fall on them?
Stuart Atkinson: Yes.
Q86 Chair: Presumably, if it was being transferred from a police budget to yourselves, that would have been cost-efficient because you are cheaper than the police. That is what it boils down to, is it not?
Stuart Atkinson: We are cheaper. Loch Lomond, for example, would have had a proper search and rescue organisation, and if a yacht got into trouble rather than having to rely on mobile phones, which are very dodgy, they could call on VHF and there would be an operator to answer that call. On the English lakes, they have an aerial site above each English lake that has commercial vessels-Ullswater, Coniston Water and Windermere-and vessels can call the coastguard direct and say, "I need assistance." That does not happen.
Q87 Chair: What you propose is not something entirely new; it already applies in the Lake district.
Stuart Atkinson: And on Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland and the Norfolk broads.
Q88 Chair: If we make a number of recommendations, that might very well be something that we want to pick up for the Minister to examine. Once you have left today, if there is anything helpful that you could let us have about that after you have left, we would want to consider it.
Q89 Iain McKenzie: On the physical presence of the coastguard stations, if you are a layman looking at the map now you would wonder, would you not, why the Scottish coastguard stations all seem to be skewed to the north? Perhaps the layman does not see any reason that would benefit our coastal waters. Is there anything that you can say would be a benefit in having those stations all in the north?
Stuart Atkinson: We definitely need coastguard stations in the north. We need them in the south of Scotland as well and in the central belt. The only reason that we can see for them ending up in the north is because those sites are owned by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Fife Ness is owned by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency but Clyde is not. The Government’s answer is that we are paired with Belfast. The figures of five incidents over five years show that we do not do it very often. When we have had incidents, we normally hand them back. There have been one or two more efforts made since 22 November when the Government announced that this was their plan. We have paired with Belfast three times, and basically that was forced on the SMC. He did not feel that it was safe to do it, but it was forced on him. There were no contingency plans made.
Q90 Iain McKenzie: We are talking about Scottish stations, and the layman looking at the map may think that there could be a better balance in the position of stations and also that there would be an overlap.
Stuart Atkinson: You would think that; you would think that there would be a balance around the Scottish coast, be it in the north, the north-west, the west and the east. That balance seems to have disappeared, with us retaining only the three stations in the north.
Q91 Fiona Bruce: Would you describe how the technology to support the work of the service will change as a result of these reforms?
Stuart Atkinson: The technology that we have now will exist after the reforms. The only difference is that the MCA proposes that the equipment in the stations will be exactly the same. We will still only be able to put so many aerials up on one screen. We hope that the technology will connect to two data centres, one in Aberdeen and one down at Fareham. They will have a third MOC, which will be unmanned, in Dover, which is for resilience purposes.
However, the aerials that they propose to connect to Faslane-what we call "A1 aerials"-are our primary aerials, and that raises a number of concerns for the PCS because, in certain areas of Scotland, if a station goes down it will not be covered. For example, the infill aerial-probably the best word to use-on Ross of Mull was because of the tragic loss of a number of teenagers who were going across to Iona. That will not be transferred to Fareham if Stornoway or Belfast go down. The aerial that looks after the inner Clyde will not be transferred. We have a lot of infill aerials on the west coast of Scotland because of poor communications caused by the topography. They will not be transferred, so there is always the risk if we had an outage at a station that calls would be missed.
Q92 Fiona Bruce: Earlier in your evidence you said that IT systems have proved wrong against local knowledge. Would these new systems, this new procedure, not improve matters, or would it remain the same effectively with local knowledge still being needed?
Stuart Atkinson: Yes. They are working on a system with Ordnance Survey, which gives us an inroad into, say, Tarbert. I use Tarbert as an example. If you type in the word "Tarbert", it will come up with 40 or 50 different Tarberts on the west coast of Scotland.
It is an IT-based system; what happens when that goes down? It is run by an outside organisation. I mentioned before that it is a BT service that is provided to all emergency services, and if it is a landline it provides an address and telephone number, which is great. If it is a mobile phone, it provides a circle or an eclipse of the area where they think that the call comes from. In the example that I used, it told me that the call was within 25 km of that aerial, but it was about 75 km away from that aerial. It is the topography. The signal had gone through the glens and had been picked up. That is how it works in Scotland.
It has not been thought out as such. The topography of Scotland is very different from other parts of the UK, and we suffer. Most of our faults happen between the BT exchange and the aerial site. For example, if you lose a BT exchange in Oban at the present time, you will lose all communication on the Isles of Mull and Tiree. They will go down. It does not matter whether they are connected to Fareham, Aberdeen or anywhere around the UK; they will still go down, and they will have to revert to the old system of sending volunteers out to the aerial site to phone the local coastguard station. They cannot get around that. Most of the faults happen between. They are third-party faults, not the fault of our equipment.
Q93 Fiona Bruce: Often the common rationale for reducing numbers in a service is improved IT, but you are saying that that argument, from your perspective, has not been proven in this case.
Stuart Atkinson: It has not been proven, and the IT that they are using is the same as we have now but with an upgrade. Since you brought it up, I mention that, when Stornoway and Belfast take over the area during the transitional period, all those upgrades will have gone. They will get a system that will not even provide the telephone number of a 999 call and will not provide the ISEC information and geographical information, because they do not have the capacity to do that within the present IT systems nor in future. They have devised a system to infill while going through the transitional period, but the technology has not been there.
This is a good time to mention that search and rescue in the UK is not just for the coastguard. We have lost our search and rescue Nimrod. We have lost the direction finding equipment from our Coastguard services. We have lost most of the tugs around the United Kingdom. Our resources are disappearing as well. That is making the job even more difficult. With the strain on our volunteer coastguards, they are not always available.
Q94 Fiona Bruce: In conclusion, you said earlier that the systems had not been tried sufficiently for the reformed arrangements.
Stuart Atkinson: No. The PCS was promised a second trial, but that never ever happened. Dave and I went down to that second trial, but it was announced by the then Chief Coastguard, Rod Johnson, that the trial was not going ahead because the Government had come up with slightly different proposals. That was the retention of coastguard stations on a 24-hour basis rather than them closing down at night. There has never been a trial of the system.
Q95 Fiona Bruce: Nor any training of staff.
Stuart Atkinson: Nor any training, no. They do not have the MOC to be able to trial it.
Q96 Pamela Nash: I have a couple of questions following on from Iain’s question on the geography of the stations and the centres that it is proposed to leave. To be clear, are you saying that there is no other reason, apart from the financial implications, why we should have all of the rescue centres in Scotland and the north of the country and none in the central belt? Is any value to be added from not having those centres in Clyde and Forth?
Stuart Atkinson: The reasons why Clyde and Forth are going early is purely accommodation, nothing more. There is no safety reason. Can Belfast and Stornoway take that area over? Yes, they could, if there were no incidents. That is quite simple. However, we have incidents, and they have not made an adequate guarantee. The Minister has said that he will provide adequate resources to Stornoway and Belfast, but we have heard that there is no one going to Stornoway and only three staff are going to Belfast. Is that adequate when the risk-assessed level is 14?
Q97 Pamela Nash: I shall ask the questions that I expect my constituents have been thinking about if they are watching. Even if the resources were provided, if I was out having a paddle in Helensburgh and I went a bit too far out, am I going to be adequately protected by the Belfast or Stornoway centres even if the resources are given to them when, geographically, they are so far away?
Stuart Atkinson: Dave hit the point: there is no transfer of local knowledge. If that member of the public in Helensburgh was on holiday, wasn’t quite sure exactly where he was and gives the wrong information, it could affect the rescue. The information that the officers are going to have to retain is going to be a lot more. For example, the IT systems would say that the nearest coastguard lifeboat-I shall use the one in Greenock-is Kames. Yes, geographically it is; however, it is a three-hour drive around the Clyde to get there when Greenock is the closest station. That will happen with lifeboats as well if they rely on IT to provide the local information.
How can you look after an area that includes the whole of Northern Ireland, the busiest part of the west coast of Scotland and way out into the Atlantic with three or four staff? That is what will happen. People will take leave and go on training courses, and people unfortunately go sick as well.
Q98 Pamela Nash: I understand that resources are an issue, but that could potentially be resolved. You have local knowledge, which cannot automatically be repaired. What about the travelling time from the centres to areas where they are needed? Will that be severely damaged by removing the centre at Clyde?
Stuart Atkinson: I concede that the RNLI lifeboats will remain there, the volunteers will be on call and they will be called out, but if you have more incidents to deal with-
Q99 Pamela Nash: Just to be clear, even though the boats are there it is not going to be manned.
Stuart Atkinson: No, they are not manned. The volunteers turn out when required.
Q100 Pamela Nash: You have to add the time for them to travel to the boats.
Dave Macbeth: The teams will remain in the same as area as now. It is the co-ordination of those units that will be further afield.
Stuart Atkinson: If you have more work to deal with, you have to prioritise that work. If you are dealing with four or five incidents, the SMC, the search and mission controller or the person in charge has to retain the knowledge of those four incidents and make decisions on what teams have to be tasked. If you have a lot of information coming in, it overloads your staff. Therefore, there may well be delays. The busier you get, the more chance of a mistake happening. That is the easiest way of putting it.
Q101 Iain McKenzie: You are taking us through local knowledge as a reason for not basing these stations to the north. Given what is proposed, do you think you would be able to deal with a large-scale incident, where local knowledge may not have such an impact given the size of the incident taking place?
Dave Macbeth: In future, if you are supported by the MOC, you should be able to support a large-scale incident. It depends where it is. If you are talking about out at sea, then there is no real requirement for local knowledge, but we have the transition period until we get to that point. The transition period is the problem. If Stornoway has a major incident up on the west coast; it is only Stornoway that is going to deal with it, and it has no support. Whereas before we would have support from Clyde, we will not have that support.
Q102 Iain McKenzie: Over the transition period, you will have no support. If a large-scale incident takes place, you will be on your own.
Dave Macbeth: Through the transition period. At the moment we would be okay because we have Shetland to the north and Clyde to the south. If we do not have Shetland to the north, we would not have anything to the south until we got to the Belfast area.
Q103 Iain McKenzie: You already have transfer problems and staffing issues, so if they continue to have those problems in future, although you say that you would get assistance from Belfast, would that perhaps not be the case?
Dave Macbeth: You are going to have transfer of staff only if a station goes down. If Stornoway had a fire tomorrow, the staff could be transferred to another station that took over and provided that local knowledge.
Q104 Iain McKenzie: You are talking about the transfer of staff during the transition period, when staff are being transferred to Belfast. Do you accept that?
Dave Macbeth: And nobody is coming to Stornoway.
Q105 Iain McKenzie: These are from the Forth. If that does not follow suit in the volumes that the Government wish to see, and if you are going forward with a large-scale incident, you may not have that support.
Dave Macbeth: We would have a problem.
Q106 Jim McGovern: I am the MP for Dundee West, which has a large work force employed in the North sea gas and oil sector. I wonder how the proposed reforms might impact, if at all, on the North sea sector.
Stuart Atkinson: Aberdeen is going to have to take over an area from the English-Scottish border up to somewhere on the north-east coast of Scotland.
Dave Macbeth: South of Wick.
Stuart Atkinson: Just south of Wick. That is a massive area. I have worked in Aberdeen, and most of their work comes from the North sea, be it fishermen or oil rigs that have problems. They will also have to take on the leisure industry, based around the Firth of Forth and the River Tay, which will increase their work load.
With regard to increasing a person’s work load without extra resources, in the case of Aberdeen they have three new members of staff coming up from Clyde and two from Fife Ness, which is a total of five, but they already have over eight vacancies so they are not going to be able to increase their staffing levels during the transitional period. Shetland has no one going up to them, and they have six coastguard officers who have been recruited at a lower grade to fill vacancies at a higher grade; so they are devoid of staff with the experience to carry out search and rescue planning.
The assistants are not trained in that area. It is only watch officers and watch managers who are trained in that area. You cannot categorically say that it will have an effect, but the more work that is piled on to the centre then it is going to have an effect. There is also the renewable energy, which will create work on both the west and east coasts. They will create more incidents.
Q107 Jim McGovern: In the briefing that we received, we have access to the Shipping Minister’s statement. In that statement he says that he will "retain additional specialist staff" in Aberdeen. I do not know whether that is a mistake or a typo, but I would have thought that should say, "We will recruit additional specialist staff." I am not sure how you retain additional specialist staff. Are you saying that staffing is going down rather than being added to?
Stuart Atkinson: Aberdeen, because of the local economy, is fairly wealthy and has good jobs. I shall give an example. We had a young girl that the agency should have wanted to keep. She went to Aberdeen because her husband was transferred up there. She was with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, but she lasted two months because she got a better job with the oil industry in the office below the coastguard station. She doubled her wages overnight. Aberdeen has a major problem keeping staff and always has done. The specialist staff that they are talking about, I presume, are the oil liaison officers, and I believe there are two.
Dave Macbeth: There are two.
Stuart Atkinson: They liaise with the oil companies about emergency planning. They are not operators and do not answer calls of any shape or form. That is the specialist staff that I believe they must be talking about in the brief.
Q108 Jim McGovern: Ultimately, would the impact of these reforms on the oil and gas sector in the North sea be detrimental, in your opinion?
Stuart Atkinson: In my opinion, if staff become stressed and overloaded, mistakes will happen and that will have an impact on the oil and gas industry.
Q109 Jim McGovern: Thank you. Do your colleagues want to add anything?
Dave Macbeth: No.
Clive Welch: No.
Q110 Chair: We have just about covered all the points that we can, but on reflection there is one point that I am not clear about. I come back to the question of inland waterways, Loch Lomond and so on. I am not clear how much volume of work that represents. Would it be 5% of what you are doing at the moment or 50%?
The logical carry-on from that is whether, if you took that work on as a result of discussions elsewhere, it would make any difference to the relocation of the premises. If the Coastguard Service took on more work and more responsibility, it would not necessarily mean that you needed more physical locations. I presume that you could do the additional work from the locations that the Government propose, or would the additional work make the case for retaining Greenock and Forth?
Stuart Atkinson: The answer to that one is that we have to liaise with our fellow emergency services. Our coastal safety managers at the moment have to travel huge distances and we have constant complaints from our sector manager members that they do not see their line manager because he has to travel from Oban or Fort William in the north down to Kirkcudbright in the south, as well as doing his work. They have not spoken to the union about the locations for the new coastal safety set-up. They have shown us something but nothing specific. That is not going to be set up for at least another year because they have to devise the jobs, recruit the staff and move people, if required. They have to purchase or lease new accommodation where there is none, and that all takes time.
One of the fundamentals is that CalMac, for example, does not want Clyde to close because of the liaison that has been built up. At the moment they have a working relationship with ourselves and Stornoway, but we are on the doorstep. In the future we will not be on their doorstep; it is going to be Bangor, Stornoway or Aberdeen. The same applies to Aberdeen, with NorthLink Ferries. They are on the doorstep with Aberdeen coastguard station. The building up of knowledge with your co-responders is essential, and that could well be lost in the future Coastguard Service when the senior management are based, from the maritime point of view, in Fareham. The shift manager will be in Fareham.
Q111 Chair: I understand that. In terms of the amount of work that might come from taking over Loch Lomond and so on, and those stations that presently cover the Lake district, is that a tremendous proportion of their work or just a small portion?
Stuart Atkinson: I do not have exact figures, but they will have to take on about 5% extra work. It will be very seasonal in Loch Lomond. During the middle of January you might get the odd call from a vessel, but in the middle of summer we will take three or four 999 calls a day, ranging from a simple, "I have run out of fuel", to, "The boat has blown up and there are people in the water."
Q112 Chair: If you were taking responsibility for the whole of the inland waterways, it would not make all that much difference to your work load.
Stuart Atkinson: No; we would be able to take it on within our own infrastructure. We would not have to take on extra staff to deal with that.
Q113 Chair: That would not be an argument for keeping the existing stations. It is a separate argument altogether, irrespective of the number of stations. Is that right?
Stuart Atkinson: It is an argument to retain stations because you need to liaise with the resources that you have on the ground. That liaison will break down. For example, if there is no coastguard station in Greenock, the liaison between the Loch Lomond rescue service and Loch Lomond mountain rescue teams will have to come from much further, which means that these people will have to travel much further. It will just break down over a period.
Q114 Lindsay Roy: Am I right that one of your chief concerns is the implications for liaison with local support services, the partners that you work with, and your ability to co-ordinate and work together on rescues?
Stuart Atkinson: That is right. In any major emergency it is not just the coastguard; it is the police, the fire service and the ambulance service-the emergency services. It is also the councils, the hospitals and NHS trusts. There are numerous people involved, from providing accommodation for people who have lost everything to liaising about numbers.
For example, if we are taking hundreds of people off a ferry, the police will need to know where they are going. There will be injuries, so the ambulance service will have to cascade, and the hospitals will have to bring in extra staff because they will be overloaded. That liaison will be broken down. They are talking about using the police force of Northern Ireland to liaise with Strathclyde, putting more links into the system.
Where co-ordination normally breaks down now is when an incident is passed from one centre to another or at a watch change-over. That is when co-ordination tends to break down because some vital piece of information is not being passed on. If that incident happens within Strathclyde area at present, at least they can send an officer in, watch it unfold and pass it on. An officer in Northern Ireland will have to pass it on to Strathclyde, which will then pass it on to their senior management, who will then pass it down the line to wherever the incident has happened.
Q115 Lindsay Roy: To the best of your knowledge, what arrangements have been made about the impending closure of Fife Ness to co-ordinate with Fife police, Dundee police and various support agencies that we know about? What has been done on that?
Stuart Atkinson: The MCA has said that the new coastal structure will take that over. However, the new coastal structure is not in place and will not be in place when Forth and Clyde close down, so that liaison will disappear. It will land on the sector managers already in place, who are overloaded. One of the MCA’s concerns is the amount of work that these people have got. They will just be given another task to deal with.
Q116 Lindsay Roy: To sum up, you are alleging that there will not be effective co-ordination of the support service at the transition time.
Stuart Atkinson: That is correct. Our chief executive has said on two occasions in the operations room at Clyde that it is not desirable for Clyde coastguard to close in the time frame being forced on us by the Ministry of Defence.
Q117 Lindsay Roy: This is a specific point that you wish us to take up with the Minister.
Stuart Atkinson: Yes. Also the Minister said in his statement in Hansard on 22 November that no co-ordination station will close until the new MOC has been robustly tested. However, in Scotland that seems to be different; Forth and Clyde are going before the new MOC is even equipped and staffed. There is no resilience, and, if it goes wrong, there is no plan B, as Clyde and Forth will have gone.
Q118 Chair: You object to two things. One is the general question of station closures. The second is that, if station closures happen, you object to the speed with which it is being pursued. Is that fair?
Stuart Atkinson: Yes, that is fair. I personally cannot see any reason. The building in Greenock is owned by the Government. It is not going to fall down tomorrow. The MCA would have to take over the cost of it. Surely, the operational safety of members of the public outweighs a small amount in budgetary terms for retaining the accommodation at Greenock. Forth is slightly different because they have not been able to retain staff. They have lost a lot of staff, so it is very difficult for them to recruit.
Q119 Chair: Okay, I think that that covers all the points. Are there are answers that you had prepared to questions that we have not asked you?
Stuart Atkinson: Just going through the brief, we mention the Maritime Response Group, which is a fire service one. That is another facility that we believe was used five times over this period. It has been lost to the Coastguard Service, so another resource has been lost in the Clyde.
Q120 Chair: To which figure are you referring?
Stuart Atkinson: These are my own notes.
Q121 Chair: I am sorry; I thought that it was something that had been said to us.
Stuart Atkinson: Perhaps it was poorly worded. The Maritime Response group was a fire service group of people who were trained to assist fire fighting on vessels. The funding was cut by the UK Government and taken away, and the vast majority of that facility has disappeared, although some have been retained and self-funded.
There are also the emergency towing vessels. When I have asked for tugs in the Clyde of a certain bollard pull, big enough to be able to do the job, there have not been any. We had to deal with the Canadian submarine Chicoutimi, which caught fire in the Atlantic. The coastguard tug from Stornoway came down. Dave will back me up; that was put there to stop an environmental disaster. It does not happen very often, but it was Lord Donaldson who suggested it. We have one left in the Northern Isles. There is nothing now on the west coast except for harbour tugs in the main. Occasionally, you will have a bigger tug in the Clyde, but you cannot guarantee it. The commercial sector has not picked up in providing that resource.
I am also very concerned about the staffing levels around the United Kingdom and particularly during the transitional period, which we have touched upon.
Chair: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for coming along. We will be seeing the Minister later this month and we will obviously want to raise with him the points that you have raised with us. If anything occurs to you-if you walk out of the room and suddenly say, "Oh, gosh, I wish I had raised such and such"-by all means come back to us. We did agree that you would let us have something on the level of salaries and comparables that we might want to look at and make a recommendation to the Minister. Thank you very much, gentlemen. I hope that you feel you have had a fair hearing.